Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Colliding stars

It seems that one mystery of astronomy may have been cracked. For years, no one has been able to explain the source of some mysterious gamma-ray bursts. Some were determined to have come from especially violent supernovae, but the shorter ones, were an enigma. Now is seems that we may have a better answer. From a recent observation, it was determined that the source was colliding neutron stars, or a neutron star and a black hole. This is great news for many astronomers, but it may be a problem for others.

For years, Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory or LIGO, operated by Cal-Tech, has been either under construction, or fine-tuning its instrument to detect. As of May 2005, it was within a factor of 2, of its designed sensitivity. And yet, and yet.... nothing has been detected. It was built to detect the gravitational waves from events exactly like this. Now, in all fairness, it may well be that the ones we have had lately have been too far and we need to give them some time. It may be that some errors were made in the calcuation of what to expect.

This is the kind of thing that physicist both love and dread. They dread it because it tears up old theory and says, 'You were wrong, wrong, wrong.". But they love it also, because it lights the way for newer and more complete theories - for deeper understanding. And modern physics has been poised for just the kind of change and chaos that started off the last century... and ushered in Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.

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